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Renovation Reckoning: Before and After

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I was planting native perennial flowers from a local nursery's July sale this afternoon; the sun was hot, and I was sweaty and tired. "Why am I working so hard? Is it worth it?" Rescuing this dilapidated house and yard felt overwhelming and never-ending. 

So when I came inside to clean up and cool off, I took a moment for a project-reckoning and scrolled through the hundreds of photos on my computer documenting the work. Looking at before and after shots, I immediately felt better. Here's a quick tour photos, so you can see the transformation too. 

The photo above is the house when I first saw it in October, 2016; the photo at the top of the post is the front view now. Among the changes: a new roof replacing the crumbling old one, new gutters and eaves, ugly and leaking carport removed, new windows (including in the garage door), trees removed, trimmed, and relocated; gravel paths and sitting patio added, along with pollinator plantings, including a native-plant rock garden. 

Here's the back view as I first saw the house and yard through a screen of sickly Rocky Mountain juniper trees planted too close together and never thinned. Not so appealing, is it?

 

And the backyard now, after much tree-thinning and trimming, plus new windows, roof, gutters, and that fabulous new deck. Oh, and paths and sitting patios in progress (I need a load of gravel to finish that project). 

Oh, yeah, much better!

Let's go inside. I fell in love with the house for its classic mid-Century Modern details, including the big windows sited at the corners of the rooms, letting in lots of light and bringing the outdoors inside; the wood floors; and the fabulous original and very retro kitchen. All of which were in very bad shape then. I can admit now that the house was "scary," in the words of my friend Connie, who toured it with me when I first saw it. (But I knew I could rescue the place.) 

Below is a photo of the living/dining room, which in real estate parlance "had potential." (Meaning it needed a lot of work: the windows leaked and were fogged with age, the floors were scarred and filthy, the chimney lining cracked, the paint and light fixtures cheap and ugly, and so on.) 

Today, the room shines, with the floors refinished, new windows gleaming, energy-efficient light fixtures that pay homage to the 50s, and paint in mid-Century Modern hues. The original fireplace with its massive horizontal brick surround and mahogany mantel works again, with a new gas fireplace insert.

 

I love this room!

Through the doorway is the retro kitchen (photo below) that totally charmed me when I first saw the house, despite cheesy appliances and light fixtures, dirt, and a terrible paint and tile job. 

Who could resist the sunshine yellow color of those metal cabinets (top of the line in 1956, when the house was built), and the original beach blue stove? Not me.

After some hard work, a little creative vision, and a chunk of money for new windows, light fixtures, paint, floor coverings, and appliances, that kitchen gleams again. (By the way, it's bigger than it looks: I've had a dozen people in there hanging out with me while I was cooking dinner.) 

Turn around (photo above), and you see the kitchen even has its own breakfast nook, with attached powder room. Very '50s! It too, has come a long way since I moved in, when it was so NOT charming. 

At the other end of the house in the bedroom wing, what is now the master suite was a sad and cold place when I arrived the winter before last.

I lay in my sleeping bag on my camping mattress one evening before my furniture arrived and contemplated what to do with a floor that was so scarred it couldn't be saved, and a room where one end was basically a storage area-cum-hallway leading to the attached office. (photo below)

The other half of my bedroom, with the steps down to the office on the right-hand side of the photo.

Gradually I saw the possibilities: an en-suite bathroom in one corner, a laundry center and linen shelves in the other. So it became, with some seriously creative design and a lot of Jeff's skilled and meticulous work. (The linen shelves and stacked washer-dryer live behind the screen.)

The rest of the bedroom looks pretty great now too, as you can see below. (For before and after photos of my office, part of that master suite, click here, and scroll down.)

Sleeping here is a pleasure now... 

There's more. The downstairs, which was not only dark and dingy when I first saw it, but had this weird smell (Connie refused to even go down the stairs!), is now a light and bright family suite, with its own bathroom that has a cool sliding barn door with a full-light clouded pane. (photo below)

There's a laundry room down there too with an water-efficient front-loading washer and efficient dryer, plus Pancho and Lefty, the brand-new gas boiler powering the baseboard hot-water heat and inline water heater. And a new master electric panel replacing the two dodgy old ones. Overhead the attic is now insulated so the house stays warm in the winter and cool in the summers. 

It's been a big project, and an intense one. But I've been fortunate to have a great contractor to work with--we enjoy collaborating--and other skilled and talented tradespeople who have come to respect my vision (even if they did think I was crazy at first!).  

Looking at these photos, I'm proud of what we've accomplished in the past twenty months. Finishing doesn't seem so daunting now that I see how far we've come. (There's one more bathroom to renovate, the yard to finish, and I've got a punch-list of smaller details in the house.) But we're getting close. And Oh! does this place shine now...

The only thing I regret is that Richard, the love of my life, designer and builder and sculptor extraordinaire, isn't alive to see it. He would be proud of me for discovering my inner Tool Girl.

Tomorrow is his 68th birthday. I think I'll sit on the back deck after work, and raise a glass to celebrate his life and spirit. He'd like that. 

Richard Cabe (1950-2011), always beloved...

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Tool Girl Again: Why Rescue Houses?

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I was trying to explain to a friend why I would spend a year and a half plus a tidy chunk of money renovating my wonderful but very, very neglected mid-century modern house, and then decide to sell it when I finish. 

"It's the project," I said. "I can't resist a good renovation project."

That was a weak answer, and my friend knew it. She gave me one of those you-are-crazy-but-I'm-fond-of-you-anyway looks, and changed the subject. 

So what is it about building/renovation projects that has me hooked? As I've written recently, I've clearly got a "Jones" for this work: I've finished, built, or renovated three houses in the past six years. That despite basically never picking up a tool more complicated than a screwdriver or a spade until I was in my late 50s. And only then because the guy who could design and build anything died of brain cancer before he finished our house. 

That man, the one I loved with my whole heart, my late husband, Richard Cabe, was the quintessential tool guy. He owned hundreds of them, both power and hand. He could (and did) sculpt a firepit out of a one-ton granite boulder, design and build his own hand-operated crane, hoist the roof beam of our house using just ropes and pulleys, build anything with his own hands, and also out-fox an opposing lawyer as an economic expert witness. He was just that brilliant.

A boy and his tools: Richard adjusting the load-carrying beam on his gantry--hand-powered crane--after he set in place the 450-pound sandstone block that became the sculptural base for our mailbox. He had just had one brain surgery then, and would have another set of brain tumors removed in a few weeks. None of which deterred him from sculpting--or climbing ladders. 

I used to say Richard could design his way out of a paper bag--only he would build a better bag first. 

While he was alive, I never considered myself capable of conceiving, repairing, or restoring structures. I could design a landscape or restore a stream, yes. But build? No. Then Richard died, and out of sheer financial necessity, I had to finish both our house and his hundred-year-old studio building. Soon. Or lose them both in the morass of post-cancer bills. 

Thanks to patient friends (that's you, especially, Maggie and Tony Niemann!) and knowledgeable trades-folk, I learned to use tools, to hang doors and trim windows, to frame doorways and build counters, and to envision the way buildings work (or don't). In the doing, I learned that while I'm not a great carpenter like Richard was, much less a sculptor, I do enjoy and find satisfaction in the process of solving design challenges of light and space and color and form, of materials and tolerances, of construction and restoration.

What precisely do I love about that process? Something deeper than only design: "Here is this neglected space with badly-designed, old windows that leak. What can I do with it?" It's more the challenge of learning the place well enough to hear its voice, to ask, "What do you have to offer? How can I facilitate that?"

As with my office in the photos below. I saw the paint colors right away; adding bookshelves to the walls, and insulation to the attic were also a no-brainers. But it took me over a year to hear that what that window-bay needed was not just new windows, but windows in proportion to the ones in the rest of the house, with a built-in seat below.  

The north-facing "sunroom" opening off my bedroom-to-be as I first saw it. Yes, the floor was that filthy, and yes, the windows were so scarred it was like looking through fog.

Now that room just sings. It could be so many things for different people: an office, sure, but also a playroom, a craft room, an artist's studio, a kid's bedroom, a reading and movie room... Restoring it returned its beauty and its utility in the original sense, its ability to be a useful and comfortable space.

That same room almost two years later, brand-new window-seat, new windows, paint, insulation,and all. It's happy and inviting now. 

That I have sweat and skin in the game (not to mention money) just makes the work all the more satisfying, all the more meaningful. My body remembers. Restoring the house becomes part of my felt experience.

Friday I spent four hours scraping and painting the west-side house eaves to stay ahead of the guys putting up my new gutters. When I finished, I was both exhausted and exhilarated.

"Yes!" I said to myself. "I did that!" I'm not as good a painter as Shantel Durham, my contractor's daughter, is. But I can do some of the work, and get some of the satisfaction of a job done, and done well. That feels very good. 

Are those good-looking eaves and gutters, or what? The eaves on this side of the house were shabby and partly rotted when I first saw them. Now they shine. (Those are heritage tomato plants in the stock-tank planters, grown with seeds from Renee's Garden.)

As does relaxing on my deck as hot afternoon eases into cool evening. As robins chuckle and wrens fuss, a bright yellow tiger swallowtail flutters through the yard, and the twin fawns of the mama mule deer who haunts our block pick their way carefully, small hooves clicking, down the alley.

As this sixty-two-year-old, beautiful but long-neglected house settles in, ready to shelter, nurture, and inspire for another six decades--and beyond. 

What I love about this process of seeing buildings anew, is that "re-storing." Or as my friend, writer and ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan puts it, "re-storying." In listening and tending to these places, I am giving them back their voices, their stories, the gifts they have to give us. 

That makes my heart sing.

New office windows (yes, those shingles need their color-coat of paint), new deck, which still needs steps, and new paths beginning to take shape. Old house and yard, new life. 

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Lessons from Nature: Picking Up Roadkill Redux

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I'm writing this from my space at Mammoth Campground in Yellowstone National Park, with rain thrumming on Red's roof, and me drying out after a wet morning of digging invasive weeds. (The photo above is the partial rainbow that just appeared in a brief patch of sun between showers.) The good thing about a couple of days of wet weather is that it's easier to pry stubborn perennial weed plants out of the soil. The bad thing is that all of the plants are soaking wet, so I end up getting pretty wet too. 

Being wet and cold while doing hard physical work is nothing new for me. I've been an outdoors person all my life: I grew up hiking, backpacking, and cross-country skiing; I worked in the backcountry as a field ecologist when I was younger, walking miles every day as I mapped and described forests and grasslands. In recent years, I've done carpentry and renovation, and now I spend my "vacation" time in Yellowstone hand-digging invasive weeds in bone-hard, muscle-aching sessions.  

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva), one of my favorite spring wildflowers and the state flower of Montana, is one of the native plants that flourishes where I've removed invasive weeds in Yellowstone. 

What's new is that I'm learning to notice when my body has had enough. Enough stopping and digging, enough being cold, enough wet. And once I notice I'm beginning to tire, instead of pushing myself to do more, I do something I would never have done back in the days when I believed myself entirely invincible: I stop working. Not immediately, of course.

I'm not that good. But sooner than I once would have, usually soon enough to keep my Lupus from kicking in and sending me into a state of feverish shivers and muscle aches that make me feel like someone beat my whole body with a ball-peen hammer.

You'd think I would have learned that lesson long ago, since I've had this autoimmune condition all my adult life. I have learned to mind my energy and my limitations in many ways.

But not with work I love, work that puts a smile on a my face and a light in my soul. When I'm digging in new perennial plants for the pollinator habitat in my yard or wielding tools to do finish work on my house; when I'm digging invasive weeds to restore wild communities in Yellowstone, I am in the zone, making a positive contribution in the world, and I am so not paying attention to my body. That's when I'm likely to work beyond exhaustion and make myself sick, and then have to pull back and take it easier for a few days or a week. 

Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), another native wildflower that flourishes where invasive weeds are removed. I dig weeds to restore these plants and their community.
Only since I've been here in Yellowstone this week, I've noticed myself paying attention to my body and my physical condition, and pulling back before I am exhausted, not after. I'm surprised, but I like it. 

It could be age bringing some belated wisdom--I'll be 62 this September, unarguably a senior. 

Or it could be the badger I saw on my way to Mammoth on Friday afternoon. I was three hours into my drive, thinking ahead to getting to the campground and claiming my site, and getting my first look at my weeding areas. It was a showery afternoon, and I had just slithered through a bear jam (a mama black bear and three cubs near the road) that had traffic stalled for half a mile south of Tower Junction, and I just wanted to get on my way. 

I passed a car stopped dead on the road to shoot a video of an elk, and then swooped around a corner with clear road ahead when I saw a hump of salt and pepper fur fronted by a wide head bisected by a black slash in the middle of my lane: a badger. Motionless.

The body was under my truck and gone before I had a moment to respond, and when I did, I thought, I can't stop. I have to be in Mammoth by four. 

Only that was a badger, dead on the road. The last badger I saw dead on a highway was thirty years ago, and that one set me on this path of speaking for those whose voices we fail to hear and atoning for the thoughtless destruction we cause to Earth, our home. 

The essay I wrote about that first badger, "Picking Up Roadkill," a piece that appeared in the Denver Post, and also formed part of one chapter of my last book, Walking Nature Home, still ranks as one of the best pieces I've ever written. It opened a door in my life, and gave my work new purpose. 

And here was a second badger, and I was in a rush. I cursed under my breath, found a place to turn around, drove back and pulled Red as far as I could off the narrow highway. I reached behind my seat and found my weed-pulling gloves, waited for a break in the traffic, and dashed onto the road. As I  carefully lifted the badger's body from the pavement, I was surprised by how limp and warm the body was, as if the animal was simply sleeping.

For a moment I thought the badger might wake and snap at me. There was no blood, no skid marks, no broken bones. Just the badger's heavy form, soft fur, and brown eyes. Just death.

Tears filled my eyes as I carried the badger off the road and laid it gently on the ground between two fragrant sagebrushes, lupine blooming nearby. I lingered a moment, my hand on that thick fur, saying good bye. And then dashed to my truck, peeling off my gloves. 

"Thank you, badger," I said, as I pulled Red back onto the road and drove on. "I get it. I'm slowing down." 

As I spoke the words, I felt the badger in my hands again, felt the weight of the limp body and that soft fur, felt both badgers, thirty years apart, and I promised my own body that I would pay attention, go slower, be more mindful. Take my time. 

And now, with rain thrumming on Red's roof and the windshield steaming up from my out-breaths, I am doing just that. Taking my time, letting my body rest between bouts of pulling invasive weeds. Savoring my moments. I can't wake that badger, killed crossing the road in its home territory of Yellowstone, theoretically a protected place.

But I can live my life in a way that honors the lives of badgers and all other wild beings by taking my time and doing what I can to mend this battered world and all who share this extraordinary home, our Earth. Me too. 

An elk calf who watched me weed for a while, along with her mom.

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Field Trips: Seeing Home Through New Eyes

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For the past three weeks I've been crazy-busy even by my standards: Not only is my house renovation project going full-tilt-boogie, I'm working on a new book (more in another blog post) plus a feature article for Wildflower Magazine, and I've been caretaking TAC, a retreat center outside town.

The latter involves two trips a day to the center to feed two cats in two different residences, check on two guest houses, water gardens, and tend a few guests, plus help prepare for an event. The older cat puked in the house a few times, the traps caught mice, we got two inches of rain in about ten days, so for a while there was water everywhere; and a boiler pump in the main house failed during Memorial Day weekend. I raced out to the center at ten one night to shut off both the pump and the boiler. Never a dull moment... 

So when my friend Tom came to town to visit from North Carolina, I jumped at the chance to use what spare time I had to take a few field trips and show him a part of the world he'd never seen. 

One afternoon we drove down the South Fork Road, a paved and then gravel road that dead-ends where the South Fork of the Shoshone River issues from the mountains of the Washakie Wilderness. That valley, wide at its northern end near town, narrows to a gap in the Absaroka Range that has drawn me ever since I remember. I lived at the Forest Service work station near the end of the road one late summer and fall, a momentous period when I began to understand who I am and what I bring to this world.

In the background rises Carter Mountain, a long and high ridge that bounds the South Fork Valley on the northeast; those flowers in the foreground are Rocky Mountain iris (Iris missouriensis).

A few years later, when I was figuring out my then-new relationship with Richard and Molly, I set out from the trailhead at the end of the South Fork road, and walked solo through the mountains, emerging six days and 80 footsore miles later, my pack and spirits considerably lighter. 

On that afternoon field trip with Tom, we stopped to admire the spring-green valley and its wildflowers (including the Rocky Mountain iris in the photo above), and scattered pronghorn grazing on sagebrush and new green grasses. We also counted several hundred cow elk in the hay pastures along the river.

Upper South Fork: I have walked and ridden over this valley and these mountains, inhaling their scents, cataloging their plants, and memorizing the shapes of rock and leaf and wing and hoof. 

Seeing the valley through Tom's eyes on that leisurely field trip reminded me of what a magical place South Fork is. The high mesas, still snow-spotted , the deep canyons incised between them, the tall and twisting sagebrush along the river, the wildflowers... Some places etch themselves in memory, and no matter how long passes between visits, still welcome you back with a kind of cell-deep familiarity. South Fork is that place for me, the heart of the country I call home, a landscape as much a part of me as I am a part of it. 

Another afternoon, we explored McCullough Peaks, the shale badlands east of town that are wild as the high mesas around South Fork, but on a smaller scale.

McCullough Peaks in spring-green finery

We saw one of the herd of feral horses who run free there, plus more pronghorn; plump sage-grouse hens, horned larks, lark sparrows, and other grassland birds; dozens of kinds of wildflowers, and by Tom's count, at least four rainbows (I didn't count: I was driving). We also braved some fierce mud, but we and Red slithered back to the pavement just fine at the end of the drive, exhilarated by our immersion in the nearby wild.

Indian paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia var. dubia) and big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) in McCullough Peaks

On Monday, I took a whole day off and drove Tom on a big circuit of some of the most dramatic landscapes my home territory offers outside Yellowstone (which he had toured on his own the previous two days). We headed north to Red Lodge, Montana, and then followed US Highway 212 south up Rock Creek and over the Beartooth Plateau, the largest contiguous alpine plateau in North America. 

The Beartooth Highway, an All-American Scenic Highway, switch-backing up the wall of Rock Creek to reach the plateau top.

Tom marveled at the switch-backing road as we ascended the near-vertical wall above Rock Creek, and then goggled at the sweeping views from up top, the dramatic glacier-carved geology, the crazy skiers hurtling down snow-filled chutes, the drifts walling the road in places (at 10,000 to 11,000 feet, winter lingers on the top of the plateau ), and the miniature tundra wildflowers, some just an inch or two high, dotting the wind-blown expanses. 

Spring comes slowly to the alpine tundra at nearly 11,000 feet elevation near Beartooth Pass on the plateau.

Looking south from the Beartooth Plateau at the peaks North Absaroka Wilderness.

We followed Highway 212 off the south edge of the plateau into the North Absaroka Range east of Yellowstone, took a detour to tiny Cooke City for huckleberry ice cream bars and a stroll among the historic buildings. After that break, we turned back east and followed the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River downstream toward its dramatic canyon, passing Sunlight Basin, a long valley that cuts into the heard of the North Absarokas. We turned aside at Antelope Mountain to take a Jeep road as close as we could get to the edge of the canyon. (That's Red near Antelope Mountain in the photo at the top of the post.)

After crossing Sunlight Creek, we took the switchbacks up and over Dead Indian Pass, and back to the Bighorn Basin. The name of the pass between mountains and plains most likely honors Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce Indians, who fooled the US Army by descending from that ridge into the near-impassable Clarks Fork Canyon in their attempt to escape to Canada in 1877. (The Army caught them a month later, and "escorted" the 700 Nez Perce and their 2,000 horses to captivity at the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho, a story that hurts my heart.)

The view from the top of Dead Indian Hill toward the plains of the Bighorn Basin, where the Army waited for the Nez Perce.  

By the time we got home Monday evening, I was worn out from that long but glorious field trip. And Tom was hooked on the beauty of northwest Wyoming.

Looking at the photos I shot on our various field trips, I am struck by two things: First, how fortunate I am to to be able to spend time in this extraordinary country. And second, how much these wild mountains, valleys, and sagebrush basins shaped who I am, how I live, and my vocation of writing and healing this world. 

Especially South Fork, the valley which opens wide its arms and welcomes me like a lover, suffusing my cells with that unmistakable combination of comfort and sheer joy that says simply, "home."

The South Fork Road, arrowing my heart home... 

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The Gift of Renovation: New Understanding

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One of the things that fascinates me about house renovation, or any kind of restoration work (including digging invasive weeds in Yellowstone, which I'll be doing next month) is that the process of changing something outside ourselves often shifts our internal perspective as well.

In the process of working with my contractor, the amazing Jeff Durham, and the other tradesfolk who have helped me revive this long-neglected house, I've experienced "aha!" moments that I'm not sure I would have seen in any other way. Certainly not so quickly or so clearly.  

Take our current project, replacing the old, leaky, and cloudy windows in the bay in my office with new ones. (My office is the extension off the back of the house in the photo above, with the bay where my desk has sat since I moved in a year and a half ago.)

We replaced all of the other windows in the house last summer and fall. (Except for one other bay window, which I'm not going to replace, but I am going to refinish.) I didn't plan on replacing the windows in my office bay, first because I thought since they were 30 years newer than the rest of the windows in the house, I could live with them. 

I could have, except that with new windows throughout the rest of the house, it was painfully clear how cloudy the ones in my office were. Looking through them was like looking through a perpetual mist.

My office, pre-window-replacement

Then over the winter, I realized how leaky they were compared to the new windows in my bedroom, which shares the same airspace with my office (the two rooms are separated only by a wide doorway and two steps down). The hot water baseboard heat was on in my office about twice as much as in the rest of the house, and I still had to run my electric fireplace to stay warm. 

Once I decided to replace those windows, I ran into issue number three: design. My office was added to the house in 1982, when bay windows were in vogue and mid-century modern design was not. So neither the windows nor the bay follow the horizontal lines of the original house. (In the photo at the top of the post, notice how even the huge triple-window unit in the living/dining room is wider than it is tall, and the horizontal framing separating the lower panes emphasizes that.)

The office windows were taller than wide, proportionately wrong for the rest of the house. So the question was, without tearing off the bay itself (an expensive proposition), how could we give the windows a more horizontal look? 

I decided to make them shorter, so they would be proportionately similar to the large upper panes in the living/dining room windows. After measuring the windows, we settled on two-thirds of their original length. Meaning below the top of my desk would be solid wall, with glass from there up. 

We ordered the new windows and then Jeff got busy with other jobs, and soon it was winter, when neither of us wanted to tear out the old windows in below-zero (F) temperatures. 

Window replacement time finally came this week. I spent Sunday evening moving my desk, plus printer stand and file cabinets, and reassembling the whole thing under the bookshelves on the east wall of my office. 

My desk in its new location, before window replacement

As soon as I finished, I sat down at my computer to try out the new configuration. I looked over my left shoulder at the window bay and realized the now empty space would be perfect for a window-seat. So now instead of moving my desk back there once new windows are in, Jeff will build a deep, comfy window seat to fill the bay. 

I would never have "seen" that window seat without moving my desk out of the space, and reconfiguring my office. And I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of moving my desk at all if it hadn't been smack in the way of replacing those old windows. 

The open-air office: windows out, framing for the new ones in progress, with the studs for the wall behind the new window-seat in place.

Moving my desk shifted my perspective in some deeper ways too. Instead of facing the windows and my backyard-renovation-in-progress, my view is now my bookshelves with their rows of volumes by favorite writers on the West. Looking at those spines revived a long-dormant dream of spending more time exploring these expansive landscapes, and less time taking care of my beautiful but large-for-one house and yard.

New windows in, wall "dried in" with sheathing and house-wrap, and a much clearer view of my backyard... 

Since I was a child, I've imagined "someday" hitting the road fulltime to wander, write, and explore wild places throughout the West. I'll be 62 this year, older for the first time than Richard was when he died of brain cancer. That fact reminds me that I can't assume life will offer me a "someday." If I want to follow my long-time dream, I need to start planning now.

So I've decided that my next house will have four wheels and solar panels on the roof. But first, I have a house and yard to finish renovating. With a great deal of love and care, and eyes open for what other new perspectives the process may yield. 

Trimming the exterior of the new windows. Shingles and paint to come... 

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Gratitude for Mothers of all Sorts

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Mother's Day reminds me to appreciate mothers, those of the heart as well as those who bear us. Thank you to all who nurture and support life, whether human or any of the other life forms who take part in the community of this breathing, animate planet. Your love is a gift.  

(That's my mom, Joan Cannon Tweit, in the photo above, on her last wilderness camping trip. She was 78 years old when we hiked to a yurt in Colorado's Never Summer Range to celebrate Dad's 80th birthday.)

As I worked in my yard today, I thought about Mom, and how much she would enjoy the daffodils blooming in clumps here and there (I planted 150 daffodil bulbs last fall, and they are rewarding me abundantly this spring). And the peonies peeking up from the soil with their red stems and finger-like leaves; the lilacs, purple buds sill tight-fisted; and the green spears of the lily of the valley leaves emerging in the backyard, where the roof runoff waters them after each wet snow or spring rain. 

She would have loved the native plants I'm adding to my once lawn-bound yard too: the new leaves on the spreading phlox and the penstemon, the tiny golden buds on Jones goldenaster, and the yarrow, mallows, and Lewis flax appearing the back-yard meadow. 

Mom taught me to love plants. She is the one who led our family's clandestine expeditions to rescue wildflowers from development sites, digging up their fragile roots carefully and nestling them in soil in plastic bread bags, and then pedaling home on our bikes to replant them in her woodland garden. (Mom was legally blind and didn't drive, but she was fearless on a bicycle.) 

The "bellyflowers" she would kneel on the ground to admire on hikes to windswept alpine tundra, the breathtaking swaths of gold California poppies on the Big Sur Coast in spring, and the rainbow of flowers in the Sonoran Desert. She wasn't picky though--if she couldn't have wildflowers, Mom was just as happy burying her face in fragrant peonies, admiring brilliantly colored tulips, or smiling when I twirled hollyhock flowers like full-skirted ballerinas. 

California poppies on Big Sur

She loved redwoods so tall I got a neck-ache from trying to see their tops, as well as twisted and wind-blasted pines at upper timberline. She took joy in spiny cactus, even the fishhook cactus that six-year-old me sat on accidentally, and Mom, magnifying glass in hand, had to tweeze each hooked spine out of my butt. 

Mom was, as I wrote in Bless the Birds, 

the wavy-haired, blue-eyed college student who met Dad at the University of California, a six-block walk from her Berkeley home, and made him wait until she graduated to get married. ...Who earned a master’s degree in library science despite being legally blind. ...Whose smile could light up a room; who prized birdsong, wildflowers, and mountain hikes as much as chocolate. And she really loved chocolate.

Mom died on February 3, 2011, two months to the day before her 80th birthday, and nine months before brain cancer took Richard, the love of my life. I think of Mom every day, and especially when I work in my yard, or go for a hike to see wildflowers. Or eat some chocolate... 

-----

For a plant-person like me, a day with time to hang out with my green kin--whether wild or in my garden--is an excellent day, whether it's Mother's Day or any other day of the year.

The ony thing that could make Mother's Day better is getting this note from Molly, the daughter of my heart, along with a gift certificate to one of my favorite mail-order nurseries:

Happy Mother's Day
You have always been and always will be a mother to me. When I think about my strengths, I see your hand and voice in all of them. 
I'll send you a longer note, for now just sending love.

Oh, yeah. That one made me cry. Thank you sweetie! I love you too. Always.  

Stand-up paddleboard lessons with Molly and her fearless dog, Roxy. Molly is like a dancer on a SUP; I excel at falling off with a huge splash!

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A Jones for House Renovation Projects

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I'm in New Mexico for my final work trip of this spring, and today I took the day off (I know, me, not working?!) for some personal care. (I'm working on that finding-a-sustainable-life-pace thing, and taking time off to take care of myself is part of that practice.)

This afternoon, I was telling Heather, my fantastic hair stylist at Rock Paper Scissors in Santa Fe about my renovation-project-in-progress of my house in Cody. (That's my renovated mid-Century Modern living-dining room in the photo above. It was not in that kind of shape when I bought the house.)

"You love a house project, don't you?" she said. 

I do. It occurred to me later that I've been engaged in house renovation or building projects for much of the past two-plus decades, beginning with the sweet little brick duplex Richard and I bought as our summer home in Salida, Colorado, in 1995, when we still lived in New Mexico. That duplex was built in 1902 in Salida's wrong-side-of-the-tracks West Second Street neighborhood, close to what was then an extensive railroad yard.

Like many houses in the neighborhood at that time, the duplex had "potential" in real estate parlance, meaning it was in very bad shape. The building boasted an ornamental brick front (which had been spray painted blue) and original wood sash windows (which neither opened nor shut after nearly a century of weathering), hand-plastered walls, antique wiring (so old it was actually flammable), and plumbing put together with duct tape instead of actual joints. In hard rains, the roof leaked down the inside of the walls, and there were locust sprouts growing through the joints between the pine floorboards in a few places.

But the price was right, and the little duplex was in walking distance of everything we loved about Salida: the river, the library, the town trail system, the hardware store, and downtown with its galleries, coffee-shops, and bookstores. So we bought it, fixed the worst problems, and rented it until we moved to Salida fulltime two years later. 

Dad, Mom, and Richard on the dilapidated front porch of the duplex in the summer of 1997. We (I and our alcoholic handyman) had carefully sanded the blue paint off the brick front by then.

By the time we moved, Molly was in college, and Richard was on the road as an expert witness testifying in cases in 23 different states about the deregulation of the telecommunications industry. His usual MO was to arrive home on Friday night, write or edit testimony over the weekend, and fly off to the next case on Sunday afternoon. 

Which left me in charge of the crew making our place habitable. While I finished my fifth book. Mind you, it was Richard who understood building, and spoke "tool" fluently, not me. But I was there and he wasn't, and no construction project stays even close to schedule if the decisions have to wait for the weekend for the job boss to be home.

So I became de facto job boss. Our contractor (thank you, Bob Spencer!) and his crew learned to come to me with not only questions, but explanations for what the outcome of the decisions I was making implied. I learned a lot about house guts and renovation before that duplex was finished enough that we could fully move in. I also learned to trust my instincts. 

Which came in handy over the course of the six years (!) we spent building Terraphilia, our house across the alley, and began the renovation on the historic brick industrial building that was Richard's studio. For the most part, Richard handled the building and renovation, and I handled restoring the land and block of adjacent creek. But after my experience as job boss on the duplex renovation, I had a say in the design and building decisions.

Terraphilia with Richard's studio behind (peeking out on the right-hand side)

To Richard's (and my) surprise, I also proved an adept helper in a pinch, like the October night when he came home after finally wrestling the last sheet of leaking metal roofing off of his studio building, and reported that underneath, the decking planks had large gaps between them. A snowstorm was predicted by morning, so he needed to get waterproofing membrane on the roof or risk damaging the hundreds of books and tools in the studio, along with his big table saw, planer, and other woodworking machines. 

I volunteered to roll the layers of waterproofing membrane across the steep roof so he could do the skilled bits like repairing rotten planks and stabilizing the brick parapets. After some discussion, he agreed (I suspect only because no one else was available). We finished "drying in" the roof at just before two am, and then staggered across the alley to bed, exhausted. The next morning brought ten inches of heavy, wet snow. The studio roof didn't leak a drop. 

My budding competence at building renovation projects came in handy again when Richard died of brain cancer five years later, leaving both the studio and the house unfinished. The studio needed a ceiling, new wiring, new plumbing, and some drywall and paint. A combination of friends (a shout-out to expert painter, Robbie Smith!), volunteers (thank you, Grant Pound and the Colorado Art Ranch crew), and professionals completed that work with me as job boss. 

The inside of the historic studio building after finish-work. 

The house was a bigger project. It lacked interior trim and baseboards, interior doors, cabinet doors and drawers, and a finished master bathroom (only the toilet and my soaking tub were in place and functional), and involved design and materials challenges that Richard had talked about often, but never solved. After our nephew did the trim-work and baseboards in the attached guest apartment (thank you, Andrew Cabe!), I imagined hiring out the rest of the house. Until I looked at my finances and realized I couldn't afford to hire anyone else. 

I had only been job boss up to that point, and occasionally grunt labor. My tool competence was approximately nil. I had everything to learn, and no time to waste. I needed to sell the whole complex to pay an overwhelming amount of post-brain-cancer bills. When I rashly told my friends Maggie & Tony Niemann, software developers who also rehab houses, that I had decided to do the finish work myself. They said, "We'll teach you."

My best friends, the air compressor and larger of the two pneumatic nailers, both of which lived in the back hall of the house for nine months. 

And they did: we spent an average of two evenings a week and one weekend day for the next nine months at the work. I am in their debt forever. In the process, I  learned to live with an air compressor in my back hall (to power the pneumatic tools, which I also learned to use), to mill lumber with the giant table saw, planer, jointer, and belt sanders in Richard's studio. I learned how to work with not just wood, but also metal, stone, and other materials. And I learned how to understand what lay behind the design decisions I made. Hands-on work implementing your own decisions is perhaps the best way to truly learn. If not the easiest.

The living room at Terraphilia, the big house, after we boxed in the studs dividing that long block of windows, and added trim and baseboard throughout. 

While Tony and Maggie were teaching me how to finish the big house and helping me do the work, I also oversaw the design and construction of my little house (Creek House) and garage with second-story guest studio (Treehouse) at the other end of the block. For that project, I went back to job boss, only occasionally picking up my tools to do some finish details. It was the first building project I had overseen completely on my own, and I'm still proud of it. The spaces turned out as beautifully as I imagined, and the passive solar design worked just the way I planned. (Whew!)

Treehouse (on the left) and Creek House (on the right) from across the creek that inspired the name of the house. 

Three years after selling Terraphilia and the studio, and moving to Creek House and Treehouse, I picked up stakes and headed home to northwest Wyoming. Where I fell in love with the totally dilapidated mid-Century Modern house and its too-big yard that are my current project. (Both house and yard had been negletced for decades. My friend Connie, after touring the house when I first looked at it, told her husband Jay that the place was "scary." In hindsight, I agree!)

New roof and eave work to come next month, plus more plantings to replace the lawn in the front yard... 

A year and a quarter after that January move, I can see the end of my current house and yard renovation project. It's been deeply satisfying to revive this once-beautiful house and ready it for its next sixty years. I've mostly been job boss on the house, but the yard has taken a lot of physical and mental labor: muscle and grit and determination. So I have sweat and skin in the game, and I'm already wondering what's next. 

I realize now that building and landscape renovation is in my blood, and I'm not likely to quit anytime soon. So somewhere out there is the next project that will suck me in... The truth is I'm wholeheartedly in love with the whole renovation and building thing: the challenges, the design problems, and the work with tools and materials. It's satisfying to bring structure and place to life, engaging body, brain, and heart. 

Me, sweaty and determined Tool Girl at work... 

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When Life Gives Us "Bonus Time"

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I was curled up in my sleeping bag in Red one night on my road-trip, cozy and warm and digesting both dinner, and what I had seen and heard over the day's miles. As I started to drift off to sleep, a phrase drifted across the screen of my mind, "bonus time." Then I heard or dreamed a voice saying, "This is your bonus time. Use it well." 

The next morning, I woke before dawn to frost on the inside of the windows in my truck topper. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and thought about the message I had heard. What does "bonus time" mean? And what will I do to use it well? 

I pondered the idea for another two days and 900 miles. (I am definitely not a fast thinker!) I think for me, bonus time means that after 16 years of intense caregiving of others, beginning when we moved my parents to Denver in 2002, I have reached a period in my life where I am free to do what I want to do, whatever that may be. (Assuming I can pay the bills, of course, and stay healthy.)  

Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly 29 years, has been gone six years and three months, and the years of scrambling to pay the debts left from his journey with brain cancer and find sound financial footing are behind me. No more working two jobs, no more evenings and weekends spent finishing the house and his shop with the help of patient friends (thank you, Grant Pound and crew, and Maggie and Tony!) so I could sell that property before I lost it. No more racing to finish the little house, my next home, so I would have a place to live while I figured out what was next.

Richard and Molly, January, 2010: He has survived his first brain surgery (that sinuous scar on the side of his head will be re-incised three more times), and is a few days from finishing his first course of radiation for brain cancer. She is about to head back to San Francisco after spending a week in Denver with him while I was on an island off La Paz, Mexico, leading a writing retreat.

No more driving hell-bent-for-leather over the mountains in all manner of weather to sort out a problem with Dad, living alone in Denver after Mom's death. Dad is now comfortably settled in the Assisted Living unit of the retirement community in Western Washington where he moved to be closer to the rest of the Tweit clan (my brother, sister-in-law, and their girls and families). Molly is settled in San Francisco in a challenging career in advertising. And I, who wasn't supposed to live beyond my twenties, am still chugging along, albeit more slowly than I once did. 

So this is truly my bonus time, however long it lasts. "Bonus" because I didn't expect to be here, alone, with no one depending on me. "Bonus" because I am here at all. "Bonus" because with the help of friends and my family, I am debt-free and can pursue the work I love, writing, and restoring houses and land. Of course to get that bonus, I had to find a gracious and discerning way to help two of the people I love most in this world live through the end of their lives. And then I had to survive their loss, and learn how to live well without them. 

 

My restored living-dining room on a sunny day recently when the spring weather wasn't spitting snow the way it is right now. 

I realize that it could be argued that rescuing a house as badly dilapidated as this one was, or hand-digging invasive weeds in a landscape as enormous as Yellowstone and its 3,500 square miles of wildness could be considered forms of caregiving. Of a particularly insane sort. 

To me though, caring for a house or the community of the land is less fraught than caring for most people. I can enjoy the creative effort, the fast-on-my-feet problem-solving, and the complexities of restoration without having to pick my way through a minefield of human emotions. So neither feels as emotionally taxing. Yet like human caregiving, both are ways to make positive change in this increasingly negative time.

So what am I going to do with my bonus time? I think I've answered my own question: write, and restore neglected or injured places, both buildings and land. Exactly what any of those projects look like and where the path ahead will take me, I don't know. I do know I am looking forward to the journey, and I will do my best to make good use of this bonus time. 

Snow, sleet, and wind have not daunted this little yellow species iris (Iris danfordiae) blooming in my yard, a tiny but heartening harbinger of spring to come. 

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Windshield Time: Listening and Making Time

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I've been on the road since a few days after I wrote the last blog post, driving almost 4,000 miles in two and a half weeks. Which may prompt you to ask, "Didn't you just write about re-learning your limits?" 

I did. This trip was very much an exercise in making time to remember what I do well and what inspires that doing. With reminding myself (again) how intimately linked the doing good work well and the taking care of myself are. One does not happen without the other. And remembering (again) that doing what I love means nurturing myself in the doing. 

I drove to central California via the southern route (St. George, Utah, Las Vegas, and Bakersfield, California) in order to avoid spring snowstorms in the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada. On my way, I stopped to visit a couple of places Richard and I always intended to see but never made time for, including Carrizo Plain National Monument between California's Central Valley and the chaparral-covered, sage-scented coast ranges. (Photo at the top of the post.)

I drove into the faulted, grassy hills of Carrizo Plain from the south end, on a paved road so little used the prairie is actively reclaiming the edges and the middle is crumbling. The road follows the fracture of the San Andres Fault, so its term is limited anyway. Nature, as the bumper sticker says, really does bat last. 

I spent a couple of fruitful hours there with absolutely no agenda other than to stroll the unpeopled expanse of grasslands, searching for spring wildflowers and listening to the wind whisper in last year's silvered grasses as meadowlarks fluted around me. I saw one other person, an intern who had driven the 50-some miles from the interpretive center to check on the un-staffed kiosk near the south "entrance," where the barbed wire fence is the only sign of the monument's boundary. We chatted about bird songs and wildflowers, and his work interpreting the Painted Rocks archeology site. And then he left, his truck rumbling away over the far ridge, leaving me with the peaceful winnowing of wind in the grass, sun warming my skin, and those melodious meadowlarks.  

Next stop: San Luis Obispo, where I took the time to spend the night with my dear friend Sharon Lovejoy, author and illustrator extraordinaire, and her husband Jeff Prostovich. (Here's a blog post that gives a wonderful taste of Sharon and her work.) Some years back, Sharon and Jeff invited me to stay with them in the charming loft above Sharon's painting and writing studio, with its walls of books old and new on nature and art and life. On subsequent trips to California, I have never had time to take them up on their offer. This trip, I made time, and had the gift of dinner and conversation in their Mission-style Craftsman bungalow, sleeping to rain pattering on the roof, and waking to birdsong and Sharon's garden.

Part of Sharon's garden, a riot of plants, from edibles like lemon trees to native shrubs and wildflowers, and a mecca for birds of all sorts. 

From Sharon and Jeff's, I headed north to the Bay Area. The traffic on the 101 was miserable, and it rained almost all the way to San Francisco, but I saw two double rainbows on the way, which I took to be a good omen. 

The sun came out as Red and I wended our way through the city and then across the Golden Gate Bridge. I made time to stop in Marin City to meet with Nita Winter and Rob Badger, the two incredible photographers behind The Beauty & The Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change, a traveling museum exhibit and coffee-table book in progress. (I wrote an essay for the latter.) Seeing their photos up close was inspiring, as was trading stories of our work. 

From Marin City, I wound my way north and west to Fairfax, and up the narrow road with blind curves to the hillside house of my friend Jenny Barry, designer and packager of award-winning photo, illustrated, and cook books (books she has created have won the James Beard Award, the Colorado Book Award, and many others). Jenny's husband, architect and sculptor Tom Powell designed their house with its clean lines, great light, and wonderful view. She needed a Girls' Night, so we wound our way back down the hill to Tamal, a restaurant inspired by the cuisines of southern Mexico, where we ate a leisurely and delicious dinner and talked about our passions: books and publishing and kids and caregiving and ecological restoration. 

The next morning, I got up early and drove west toward Tomales Bay through fog giving way to sunlit meadows and the deep shade of redwood groves, aimed for Point Reyes Station and the Geography of Hope Conference. The Conference, an annual gathering focused this year on "finding resilience in nature in perilous times," was my reason for the trip. When I first saw the announcement, the theme spoke to me on all sorts of levels: in terms of my ecological restoration work, of finding and nurturing resilience, and just the idea of turning to nature when times feel perilous, as they have for me since the year I midwifed my mother, and my husband and the love of my life through their deaths. 

I saw the announcement, read the theme, and said to myself, "Oh, I would love to go, but I don't have time." And then I realized that I needed to make time to go to the conference. My intuition said, "Go! You will find what you need." I argued, but my inner voice held firm. So I made time. 

And therein is one theme of this blog post: Being the best me I can be means finding time to do what feeds heart, mind, and soul. That is the essence of learning both my limits, and how to love me while doing the work I am passionate about: healing and restoring this earth and we who share our singular blue planet. Finding time, making time, taking time... to do what matters, what inspires, what helps me be who I am, and fuels what I love about what I do. 

The conference promised inspiration in building spiritual and emotional resilience, using nature as a touchstone. We heard from and were inspired by Peter Forbes, former Vice-President of the Trust for Public Land and now Vermont farmer, educator, and facilitator in the areas of leadership, conservation, and social justice; Rue Mapp, founder of the conservation and outdoor leadership program Outdoor Afro; and Caleen Sisk, Spiritual Leader and Tribal Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people, the "Middle River People" of the McCloud River in northern California. Three very different people with very different stories, but all resilient and optimistic about the power of nature and culture to help us survive and even thrive in these perilous times. 

Their words and stories shook and reformed my understanding of what it means to be white and privileged, what it means to share the outdoors with people of different cultures and his/herstories, and what it means to have a deep spiritual relationship with a place stretching back many generations, and to heal the wounds of being ripped away from the place, and in the case of the Winnemem Wintu from the source of your identity, the salmon and the river. 

Even more inspiration and leadings came in conversations and stories of of other conference participants, having lunch with Susan Page Tillett, Director of The Mesa Refuge, where I have been fortunate to have a writing residency. In hanging out with Gavin Van Horn, Jeremy Ohmes, and Kate Cummins of the Center for Humans & Nature, a co-sponsor of the conference and an organization I write for now and again. In walking the marsh near the conference center with Kate and talking about our passions, being female in a perilous world, and about dealing with wrenching change.

Sky Road Webb kindling fire with a horseweed flower stalk in a cedar plank. It's like magic... 

And more still, especially the hands-on work when 100 or so of the conference attendees, ranging from upper teens to 80s, gathered on the banks of Lagunitas Creek to plant over 300 native trees and willow cuttings and restore habitat for the creek's unique winter-run Chinook salmon. First we searched the muddy banks for dry lichens and twigs to help Sky Road Webb, a Coast Miwok born to that watershed, kindle a sacred fire with a fire-stick of horseweed and a plank of cedar. Then Sky sang and taught us Coast Miwok songs for the creek and its salmon beside that sacred fire, so that by the time we broke into small groups to do the planting, we were singing and laughing and celebrating the work and the water and the land. 

I told myself that if I was going to take/make the time to go to the conference, I would open myself to whatever came. I did that all along the way, and at the conference I simply listened, not taking any notes other than what wrote itself on my heart and spirit. I kept that attitude over the thousand-mile drive east to Santa Fe, and during the week I spent in the City of Holy Faith before driving the last leg home. What I heard and did opened doors I hadn't realized even existed.

I'm still contemplating what it means for my path. For now, it's enough that I'm home in Cody, with snow flurrying outside, and my newly planted tomato, basil, and herb starts--the beginnings of this summer's edible garden--are cozy on their heat-mat in my greenhouse window.

Happy Easter, Passover, Oestre, Spring... It's the season of renewal and new life, and I feel that deeply in my heart and in my spirit. As the year turns toward light and new life it's time to listen closely to what that renewal is asking of us. I want to honor that turning by continuing to stay open to what I hear and feel. Blessings!

 

Six varieties of heritage tomatoes, most organic and one of basil, plus raab and broccoli, and two kinds of flowers for pollinators, all seeded in. Thanks to Renee Shepherd and Renee's Garden for the great seeds and garden inspiration!

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Reckoning With My Limits (Again)

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I'm just emerging from a nasty bout of the flu that had me so sick, I didn't even eat for several days. (I like food. It takes a lot to kill my appetite!) While I was lying on the couch shivering and miserable, I had an epiphany that I am still thinking about: 

When I am sick, I can see my limits, and I heed them. As soon as I feel better, I act as if I have no limitations at all. And then I get sick. I behave as if my physical and emotion energy are endless, and I can do anything I want--work until late, go to the gym and exercise hard, do errands, and come back and continue working as if I had all the energy in the world the draw on.  

Only I don't. I know that intellectually. I know that my daily energy budget is a slender one, and when I overdraw it, I pay in all sorts of ways: I get feverish and alternate between shivering and broiling, my hands and feet swell and my joints turn acutely painful, I like awake exhausted with my mind buzzing but can't sleep... It goes on.

This is nothing new. These are the symptoms of the autoimmune condition I've had my whole life. For long periods of time, I've kept them at a minimum by simply staying aware of and respecting my limitations. By picking and choosing what I want to accomplish in any given day. Not pushing myself to cram everything on my to-do list into 24 hours. Honoring what I know I can accomplish in a healthy way, and calling that very good indeed. 

So why am I now struggling to remember to pace myself? Why do I have such hard time integrating what my head knows is a healthy, sustainable pace into my expectations of what I will accomplish every day? 

Or, to turn the question around, what is different when I am sick?

Ah. That's the key: when I am sick, I can see my limits not just because they're obvious. But because my attention is focused inward, and I am listening to my body for clues to what the ecosystem of me--me plus those billions of microbes that are part of the community of my body--needs to get well. 

When I'm sick, my motivation is to pay attention because paying attention and heeding what I hear is the path to feeling better. 

But when I am not sick, I see no urgent need to pay attention to my body. I cruise on auto-pilot. Everything is working, so there is no need to listen within. Until I crash, and have to correct. 

Ah again. So the question becomes not why am I not paying attention, but how do I motivate myself to pay attention? Or perhaps, how do I align my expectations of what I will accomplish in a day with what I know I can do sustainably? 

And that is the heart of the epiphany I had while gripped in the misery of flu and fever: It's not that I'm not listening to myself. I'm not honoring what I hear. I want to value who I am, limitations and all. 

I want to live every day remembering that what's most important is not how much I accomplish in a day, but that what I do, I do as well as I possibly can, from my heart and spirit, from as healthy a "me" as I can bring to the world. 

Ah. Hah. The being thing and the doing thing are inseparably intertwined. If I am being a healthy me, I am doing what I do best. Not perfectly, but with all I can bring to the working, living, and doing what I can to make the world a better place. 

All of which brings me to some very practical realizations, including this one: I'm going to practice cutting myself some slack in the expectations portion of my life. I'll let you know how it goes!

News Flash: My agent loved the new version of Bless the Birds. Last week, she submitted it to half a dozen editors at big New York publishing houses. Fingers crossed.... 

 

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